The Zero Theorem (2013) is easily Terry Gilliam’s most accomplished film since 12 Monkeys, and it’s probably my favorite since Brazil – a film with which it bears a certain stylistic resemblance. The screen is busy with cockamamie, googly-eyed effects and set design, the usual visionary antics for which Gilliam has become famous, as fun to watch as ever…and this time, not at the expense of coherent narrative. Despite all these strengths, though, it’s still a qualified success, sadly disfigured by its unsophisticated gender politics.
Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz) is a number-crunching cog in the machine of Mancom, a nebulous megacorporation with a nebulous mission in a nebulous quasi-future. Qohen is, basically, an existential crisis in human form, a reclusive man who’s spent decades waiting for a mysterious phone call to give his life purpose. Qohen’s work-from-home request is finally granted when Management (Matt Damon) decides to assign him to solving the Zero Theorem, his job being to find incontrovertible proof of human existence’s meaninglessness. Qohen agrees to take the job, provided the company promises to help him receive his fateful Call. But in the course of working through the problem, he finds meaning in entirely unexpected ways.
While I’ve seen this film described as futuristic SF, I disagree that it’s even set in the future. Like Brazil, The Zero Theorem is a story out of time, pure metaphor; in fact I see it as something of a companion-piece to Brazil, its twenty-first century counterpart. Like much of Gilliam’s work there’s a lot of meta going on, the director inscribing his artistic dilemma into the fabric of his narrative. But for all the existential, if not nihilistic, philosophy underlying its core allegory, there are kernels of hope embedded in the tale, particulary through the human interaction. That’s what gives the film its crucial heart, and what makes the story cohere. Quite deliberately, Waltz is a central cipher, a stand-in for Gilliam and perhaps for the viewer. His personal journey is full of bleak revelations, but just enough hope is subtly encoded in his relationships to make the struggle bearable. Chiefly, there’s his awkward friendship with supervisor Joby (David Thewlis, enacting a role that Michael Palin probably would have played in the old days); a young hotshot computer hacker named Bob (Lucas Hedges); and a beautiful, somewhat over-friendly young woman named Bainsley (Melanie Thierry), with whom he embarks on a quirky relationship.
It’s in this relationship – and in its gender politics generally – that the film falls on its face. Bainsley is pretty much the quintessentially problematic female character: a token feminine presence, treated with immature male-gazey lust, who serves as a catalyst for, and is inexplicably interested in, a blasé leading man who never earns that interest. Fortunately Waltz and Thierry are both good enough to sell it, but even well played it’s glaring. The characters’ childish ogling of women, played for comic relief, is a marring problem in any case, but particularly in this kind of film, which tailors its elements to be vague and “universal” stand-ins for its philosophical discussion. By objectifying and marginalizing the tiny female portion of the cast, it conveys the impression that Qohen’s deep, intense, artistic struggle Does Not Apply to the female subset of humanity – it’s an Important Male Thing . Whether this is a failure of Gilliam the director or Pat Rushin the screenwriter isn’t entirely clear. But it makes for an uncomfortable stain on an otherwise fascinating and visually arresting film, and Gilliam’s most assured and interesting work in a long time.